New council leader gives his first interview

Thoughts of leading Midlothian Council must have been the stuff of dreams for an eight-year-old Owen Thompson.

Leafletting alongside his SNP activist uncle, the youngster became an ardent nationalist overnight and was soon attending by-elections and rallies in support of the cause.

That cause, of course, was Scottish independence, and, as the Scottish Government was delivering its long-awaited White Paper guide to an independent Scotland last week, the newly-elected Council leader was explaining how dreams of home rule had led him all the way to the hot seat: “That’s what brought me in to politics – I have felt that [Scotland should become independent] from a very young age. You look at households with kids, and it is all about supporting them to stand on their own two feet, and yet as a nation we don’t. We allow others to take us places we don’t want to be and take decisions that are not sensible for us.”

The youngest councillor in Scotland when elected in 2005, Councillor Thompson was brought up in Loanhead, and educated in Midlothian before gaining a finance and accountancy qualification from Napier University. It was there that he stepped up his involvement within the SNP, becoming its National Student Organiser.

He was widely tipped for the leadership role when his SNP group emerged victorious at last year’s local government election. However he was removed as group leader when Councillor Lisa Beattie, wife of Midlothian MSP Colin, became leader of the council with Councillor Jim Bryant as her deputy.

The following month a dramatic coup saw Councillors Beattie and Bryant replaced by Councillors Bob Constable and Thompson. In the aftermath, sources within the council claimed that Councillor Beattie was threatening to resign if Councillor Thompson ever took charge. So what of last year’s power struggle? “If there was one I didn’t see it. A lot of people like to make a lot of noise about that because they know it gets attention, when in fact the reality is quite the opposite – the group is working exceptionally well.

“My working relationship with Lisa is great – she brings a lot to the table. She has a lot of experience and makes a great contribution in the chamber.”

Taking a swipe at the opposition Labour Group, the council leader acknowledges its experience, but is frustrated at its unwillingness to take up positions on bodies such as the General Purposes Committee, Police Board and Business Transformation Steering Group.

He explained: “We are a small council that has the same functions to deliver as a council two or three times the size of ours. This is not helped by the opposition choosing not to take up a number of roles that you would hope they would. That does tend to put pressure onto the administration.

“As much as they have a lot of experience in politics they have no experience of being in opposition, and that is seen in some of the tactics they have used. Not taking part is seen as an answer when in fact raising questions about why things are happening would be a far more constructive opposition.

“Last year at the budget we saw the Labour Group simply saying ‘no I don’t like that’, and yet they produced no alternative. I’d rather be in the tent asking the questions than outside it grumbling.”